Sierra Leone war traps missionaries

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FEARS are growing for the safety of dozens of foreign missionaries trapped by the civil warfare engulfing Sierra Leone.

A radio report from the northern city of Makeni said the rebel force led by the ousted dictator Johnny Paul Koroma has been looting, killing and raping civilians. About 50 Catholic missionaries are said to be trapped in Makeni, some from European nations including Ireland.

Fr Ercole Marcelli, an Italian missionary in radio contact with the group, says they have gathered in a church building after rebels destroyed their missions in outlying areas. When last contacted they were being visited regularly by Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guerrillas.

A report radioed by a local journalist from Makeni said the rebel forces - an alliance of the former government army and the RUF guerrillas - have been ordered to make stand at Makeni. There have been claims of atrocities. "Every night they are going house to house raping women and young girls," said one report

There is still no news either about the fate of five other Catholic missionaries - three Spanish - abducted from the town of Lunsar by the RUF 10 days ago. Twenty-two other missionaries escaped on foot at night and walked 60 miles to safety.

Two doctors from the French medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres have also been abducted. And eight aid workers are believed to be trapped near the interior capital of Bo, where they were assaulted by the RUF 10 days ago.

Fr Marcelli said Koroma, who has been seen in the Makeni area in recent days, may use the Westerners as a bargaining chip against the approaching forces. With no government or diplomatic missions operating in Sierra Leone, little can be done to help foreigners trapped in rebel-held areas.

The RUF - a peasant-based insurgency movement - has a history of committing atrocities against civilians.

Colonel Maxwell Khobe, commander of ECOMOG, the Nigerian-dominated west African peace-keeping force in Sierra Leone, said he is worried about the fate of the missionaries. ECOMOG has helicopters at its disposal, but feels any premature attempt to rescue the missionaries may only endanger them further.